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Interview:
Grammy Producer Remembers Years Past
 

By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Ken Ehrlich privately likes to predict who’s going to win at each year’s Grammy Awards ceremony.

But he never reveals his picks. “I can’t do that,” he explains. “Not because I know, by the way — I don’t — but because if they know, then four (nominees) won’t be happy with me.”

Ehrlich is no mere Grammy enthusiast, mind you. He’s produced all of the annual telecasts, save two, since 1980 — and was fortunate enough to be on th sidelines in 1988, when egg splattered on the Grammys’ face after Jethro Tull won the Best Hard Rock/Metal award. Some of his “predictions” influence whom he books to play on the show, but he notes that’s when things sometimes “become tricky.”

And while the Cleveland-born Ehrlich, who’s in his early 60s, has been focusing on tonight’s 50th Annual Grammy Awards Ceremony, he took time out to write a memoir, “At the Grammys!: Behind the Scenes at Music’s Biggest Night” (Hal Leonard, 334 pages, $29.95). He explains that he “wanted to write it down before I forget it, honestly” but hopes the peek into the process of putting together the show each year adds some insight to the big-name glitz that’s part and parcel of the Grammy experience.

“There are probably a number of people that are interested in what this whole process is,” he says. “I kind of wrote it not necessarily to demystify the process, but to explain it a bit.”

And while he writes freely about negotiations with artists and their managers, miscues on the show and even battles with former Recording Academy chief Michael Greene, Ehrlich acknowledges that he tried not to scorch too much earth by what he reveals in the book.

“Yeah, there were probably a few stories left to be told,” Ehrlich says. “You can’t do this as long as I have and not have some scars and some battle wounds.

“But as I said in the book, I’ve just been kind of lucky, particularly on the Grammys. Most of them behave; I think it’s because they probably know we’ll still be doing the show if we lose an act. Other than a few, and I do mean a few, I don’t have much animus toward any of the people I’ve worked with.”

Ehrlich, who’s also produced several other awards show telecasts, does have favorite moments, however, which he shares in the book and in conversation. Having to ask Aretha Franklin to substitute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti — after the 1998 show had already started — was “as much a moment of terror as I think I’ve ever had,” Ehrlich recalls. “It was just shocking.”

Franklin, who had delivered “Nessum Dorma” at the MusiCares event before the Grammys, prepared with 40 minutes before the performance time, working from a tape from Pavarotti’s afternoon rehearsal and singing three keys above where she sang it herself.

“She’s a game girl and she did it,” Ehrlich says. “She certainly saved the show and probably saved a lot more.”

Ehrlich also has fond memories of Eminem’s duet with Elton John on the Detroit rapper’s hit “Stan” for the 2001 Grammys — which took place amid a firestorm of protests that Eminem’s music was homophobic.

“I know Elton was incredibly fond of Eminem,” Ehrlich says, “and he thought (Eminem) had been given a bad rap about this whole homophobic thing. But he really loved Eminem, so this was an easy thing to do, and it was quite a moment.”

Ehrlich can’t pick one favorite Grammy moment, but he says he can’t watch Melissa Etheridge’s performance with Joss Stone at the 2005 ceremony, as Etheridge was battling breast cancer, “without crying.”

But Sly Stone’s brief walkon during a segment honoring him and his band, the Family Stone, at the following year’s ceremony “was pretty weird.”

“I do have the ultimate faith in artists to ... deliver, but that was one of the rare times when maybe I had too much faith,” he said.

Looking back has not deterred Ehrlich’s excitement about this year’s show, however. Relieved that striking writers struck an interim deal with the Recording Academy to allow the show to proceed, Ehrlich has taken his usual mission of presenting “things you won’t see elsewhere” during the three-hour telecast from Los Angeles’ Staples Center.

Chief among the highlights is a Beatles segment that will incorporate the cast of Cirque du Soleil’s “LOVE” show and performances of “A Day in the Life” and “Across the Universe.”

“For 45 of our 50 years, is there any other single group that’s had an impact on modern music more than the Beatles,” says Ehrlich, “including this year, where there are a number of nominations for music written by Lennon-McCartney. There’s no way two songs can represent the output of the Beatles, but we think it’s gonna be a gorgeous segment that probably means a little more on our 50th anniversary.”

The telecast will not spend too much time focusing on the Grammys’ 50th anniversary, Ehrlich said. The November special “My Night at the Grammys” was intended to celebrate the show’s past, he says, and this year’s slogan is “The Next 50 are Here.”

But another segment, with Herbie Hancock joining Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang for a performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” is intended to highlight both the past and the future, Ehrlich says.

“The idea is this may be our 50th, but music didn’t start with the Grammys, and it’s not going to end when we go off the air,” he explains.

Ehrlich also is looking forward to Beyonce’s duet with Tina Turner, the Time reunion with Rihanna, the gospel revue and the Foo Fighters’ segment that will be staged on a plaza outside Los Angeles’ Staples Center in front of 2,000 fans.

“As there’s been a much greater availability of music on television and the Internet ... it’s everywhere,” Ehrlich says. “I don’t want to say that it’s trivialized, because it’s not, but there needs to be a place where it can be really celebrated for the pure performance of it. And that’s what I hope to bring to the Grammys.”



The 50th Annual Grammy Awards will be televised at 8 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 10) on CBS, WWJ-Channel 62 in Detroit. For a full list of nominees, visit www.grammy.com.

Web Site: www.grammy.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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